Grammar vs. style: ignorance in The Times

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Articles about English grammar in UK newspapers tend to exhibit an almost incredible degree of stupidity. In no other subject could such self-contradictory idiocy be accepted, or subjected to so little fact-checking. Today's exhibit is an article headed "English like it never should of been" by Oliver Moody in Saturday's The Times (London, 18 May 2013; don't buy a subscription just to read an article as asinine as this, but click this link if you already have a subscription; if you wasted $2.50 on hard copy as I did, look at page 3). I will deal with just one example of its boneheaded ignorance, one out of many.

This was the sub-head: "Language is becoming more democratic as even MPs fail to speak properly, a study from Cambridge reveals."

So, it is "democratic" to speak improperly? And Members of Parliament are actually doing that? Intelligent readers will seek evidence.

But there is no hint of any support for this nonsense in Moody's article. Just one thing is said in the article about how Members of Parliament speak today: Michael McCarthy (retired from a professorship in applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham) is quoted as saying there is a "growth toward informality" in modern English over the last 20 years as exemplified in the latest version of the 2 billion word Cambridge English Corpus, and: "We can listen to debates in Parliament and hear MPs saying things like ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’."

But this isn't improper! It is evidence that some MPs are speaking what I have suggested we should call normal-style rather than formal-style Standard English in Parliamentary speeches, and accordingly they may pronounce the going to that indicates future time reference in the normal-style variant form [gənə].

Notice that there is a grammatical constraint on this: the substitution is never made when going to means "proceeding toward". So, for example, going to Germany does not have the same range of pronunciations as going to germinate.

To be more specific, going to Germany is not pronounced *[gənəˈʤɜməni] in British English (or *[gənəˈʤɝməni] in American): the verb of motion going must be pronounced something like [goiŋ]. By contrast, going to germinate is optionally and very commonly pronounced [gənəˈʤɜmɪneit] in British ([gənəˈʤɝməneit] in American), in normal style speech.

To say that if you use this special pronunciation option you "fail to speak properly" is lunacy. The opposite is closer to the truth: you are in danger of failing to speak the normal style of Standard English properly if you don't use gonna. There may be some British speakers who don't use the gonna form much, but it's there in John Wells's Longman Pronunciation Dictionary; and to me a sentence like "I am not going to put up with it" with every vowel and consonant pronounced individually in its stressed form sounds like an extraterrestial speaking ("Do. Not. Fear. Us. We. Will. Not. Harm. You").

The important point is that the many British speakers who do use gonna are not doing it by mistake. It's a style-dependent pronunciation variant familiar to tens of millions of speakers (plus hundreds of millions more in other anglophone countries); it's not a slip-up or a transgression.

Will we ever see a world in which there is enough linguistic training for journalists and editors that they at least know the difference between flawless command of normal-style Standard English pronunciation on the one hand and grammatical error on the other?

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